After all, if someone you knew came to your house and offered you a cable system with all the channels, fully paid for—”Just ignore that registration and phone number part, and don’t ever contact the cable company about it!”—what would you do? Likely, you would smile, thank them for the offer and decline.
But when we need software or another computer, many of us have no problem letting people we’ve never met—sometimes from countries we’ve never visited (and may have never heard of)—give us license keys, hardware deals, and other great bargains. And we use these too-good-to-be-true tools to do work with extremely sensitive data.
Don’t believe me? In surveying 1,700 workers, tech officers, and government officials in 13 countries, along with 203 computers purchased from resellers and specialty stores, research group IDC and the National University of Singapore found that the chance of malware being present in pirated software is about one in three. On a computer bought on the cheap, with pirated software present? 61 percent. And even if your network is in good shape, users who are able to download and install these programs onto company machines are potentially putting you at risk.
In all, malware is going to cost businesses across the globe $491 billion in cash, downtime, and other bottom-line hits in 2014, according to the study. When you take a look at the study’s data more closely, the message is clear: that copy of QuickBooks that wasn’t paid for today is likely going to cost you something down the road.
Let’s assume that you don’t want your company or your home to host botnets, viruses, spam servers, or have vast amounts of your personal or company data breached. What can you do?
TURN ON AUTOMATIC SECURITY UPDATES
This is the first step, as you can’t assume anything about what your software is secretly doing. If you turn on automatic updates on your Windows or Mac machine, and/or ensure you’ve updated your mobile devices to the most recent software, you’re doing better than the 36-53 percent of consumers around the world who are ignoring them (slide 15).
With automatic updates, you’re more likely to eventually catch up with the malware that may be lurking around your systems.
CHECK WHAT REAL SOFTWARE LOOKS AND ACTS LIKE
As with phishing schemes, vendors of infected software and pushers of “cracked” programs rely on a mix of familiarity and laziness. That box is the same color as the Windows 7 box, right? This looks like the startup screen for Microsoft Word, correct?
Microsoft has a site to help you determine if your Windows/Microsoft gear is legitimate. If you’re dealing in Macs, do some Google Image searching for the software you’re looking for.
MAKE A FULL BACKUP EVERY TIME YOU INSTALL A NEW PIECE OF SOFTWARE
This is just good practice for anyone. Every time you are about to install a new application, set up a new utility, or just borrow a DVD from your coworker, you need to make a full backup of your system. There are built-in tools to do this in modern versions of Windows and Mac OS X, allowing you to save your system at a certain point in time, and go back to that point if necessary.
SEE WHAT YOUR COMPUTER IS DOING AND NOTE THE ODDITIES
If you think something’s up with your system, you can take a look under the hood and see if you can spot the stowaway critter yourself. It won’t always work, but quite often, you’ll get at least a hint at what evil lurks beneath.
On Windows machines, a Control+Shift+Escape key combination brings up the Windows Task Manager. On a Mac, you’re tapping Command+Shift and typing out Activity Monitor. Both utilities show you everything that’s running on your system at the moment.
Some of it will be apparent, and named for apps you have running (Outlook, Internet Explorer, etc.). Others will be more obscure. Anything that’s using up a lot of memory and/or a decent amount of “CPU,” should be searched for to see if anyone has reported it as a virus/malware problem. If so, check with your IT administrator and consider utilizing one of those useful backups we just mentioned, before you’re forced into a total system wipe.
AVOID DEALS THAT ARE TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE (IT’S PROBABLY MALWARE)
This should go without saying, but retail software selling for discounts significantly beyond the numbers you’re used to seeing at department stores aren’t something you should generally buy.
Even when the price is a theoretical zero dollars, consider why it is, exactly, that some keenly talented young software cracker (they are always young) decided to make the software you need freely available. Does he or she really believe that WordPerfect X5 wants to be free? Or might there be some long-term profit in turning your computer into a zombie, willing to spam your contacts at a moment’s notice? If you really need that functionality, consider some of the many free and open-source alternatives there are to the software you want listed at AlternativeTo.